By BENNO MUCHLER – Feb 27, 2013
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — On a warm Sunday morning in late November, about 36,000 people set off on the Great Ethiopian Run, a 10-kilometer race across the center of Addis Ababa. Diplomats, students, merchants, Orthodox priests, homeless children and professional runners were among the participants. It is one of Africa’s largest road races, hosted in the capital of a passionate running nation that has dominated long-distance competitions for the past two decades.
Haile Gebrselassie, one of Ethiopia’s most successful runners and businessmen, founded the race 12 years ago. He wanted to bring a big race to his home country.
Though finishing times are world-class, Gebrselassie’s goal of making the race an attraction has been somehow elusive. Top foreign athletes have stayed away, making the race an Ethiopian affair.
So while Ethiopia is a paradise for runners with its combination of high altitude, breathtaking tracks and mild climate throughout most of the year, there is no major international running event in the country. But things might change soon. The first Haile Gebrselassie Marathon is scheduled for October. It will be held in Hawassa, a city in southern Ethiopia, and could be more attractive to top foreign athletes. At an elevation of 5,600 feet, Hawassa is lower than Addis Ababa, and first prize is 12 ounces of gold, worth about $19,000.
Foreign athletes have long used Ethiopia’s high altitude to prepare for competition, but Ethiopia has started to capitalize on it only recently. In 2011, Joseph Kibur, a businessman with a short career as a runner, joined three others, including Gebrselassie, to open Yaya Village, a training center outside Addis Ababa. The center has a sauna, a gym and luxurious rooms, and it is just a 30-minute run from Mount Entoto, which is popular among runners.
Kibur said the center targets sports tourists as well as local and international runners. In mid-December, top athletes from Djibouti, Qatar and Britain visited, as did the London Olympics champion in the 1,500 meters, Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria.
“They want to know what’s the secret,” Kibur said. “I mean, we have high altitude, but so does Mexico and other countries, but they don’t succeed the same level. So, obviously there is something different about Ethiopians that makes them unique and successful.”
Yaya Village is not the only training center in Ethiopia. A new sports resort owned by Kenenisa Bekele, the Beijing Olympics champion in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and the current world-record holder in both events, is only half a mile away.
Bekele said in a telephone interview that it was possible to organize a big international race in Ethiopia, provided that sponsors and international athletes were on board. He emphasized that local communities should benefit from a race. Kibur’s and Bekele’s centers are in the countryside, where women carry water in yellow jerrycans on their backs and people commonly use mud to build their houses. Yaya Village supports the community through various projects, including training in English and job skills.
Many of the current and former world and Olympic champions, including Bekele, are from Bekoji, a town of 16,000. Sentayehu Eshetu, who trained many Ethiopian running stars, has limited resources there. A horse carriage slowly drove along a cobblestone road toward the city’s stadium, where the 400-meter track was a loose path of earth and stone.
Still one of the poorest countries in the world, Ethiopia nonetheless has one of the fastest-growing economies. New roads, skyscrapers, hotels, airports and railways are being built all over the country. So the infrastructure and capable sponsors are there, said Kibur, who returned to his home country after living in Canada. He said he believed Ethiopia could manage an event the size of the Berlin Marathon within the next five years.
“Locally, there are a lot of organizations that can sponsor it,” Kibur said. “You’ve probably noticed that Ethiopian Airlines, Commercial Bank of Ethiopia are huge organizations within the country. They could pay for it. We don’t necessarily need a foreign sponsor. Probably what we need is the promotional capacity of the foreign entities because they have more connections, and they have more avenues to promote it to foreigners.”
The prize money for the Great Ethiopian Run was 40,000 Ethiopian birr, about $2,200. An annual marathon in June pays 80,000 birr. That is not enough to persuade foreign runners to compete with some of Ethiopia’s finest athletes. At the Great Ethiopian Run, the men’s winner was Hagos Gebrhiwet, the current world junior record-holder in the 5,000 meters.
Samuel Demiss, a former local sports reporter, said it would be interesting to see an event similar to the New York City Marathon in Ethiopia, open to both amateurs and professionals.
“If there is one place where amateurs can beat the professionals, it’s here,” Demiss said.